Maurice Ravel was born within spitting distance of Spain in Ciboure, a seaside village. His mother was a Basque and his Muse frequently crossed the border, slipping into the rhythms of habanera, malaguena, seguidilla or what he originally called a fandango but later changed to Bolero (although it isn't really one). The second half of the concert on 7 June given in its Symphony Hall by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its young music director, the Latvian Andris Nelsons was devoted to four orchestral numbers: Rapsodie Espagnole, Pavane, Alborada del Gracioso and the aforementioned Bolero which Ravel, its composer, undersold as his 'masterpiece, which unfortunately contains no music'.
Nelsons enjoyed himself enormously, likewise the orchestra and the audience. He really is first-class and the orchestra matches him; bassoons burbling in the Rhapsody, horns fluttering in the Alborada (not quite as good on the orchestra as on the black and white piano), the plaintive bitter-sweet Pavane (better on the orchestra than the piano?) and the Bolero which duly brought the house down.
The first half of the evening consisted of the first of Ravel's operas, L'heures Espagnole (despite its name, it lasts for three quarters of an hour). There are five characters; Concepcion hopes to receive and wind up two of her lovers while her husband, Torquemada, winds up the clocks of Toledo in an official capacity. But there is a fly in the ointment in the shape of a musclely muleteer who has brought in his watch for repair; Torquemada has told him to wait until he returns from his duties. Concepcion solves the problem by getting the muleteer to shift a grandfather clock upstairs to her bedroom. But she has another problem. The young lover is a poet and he spouts his work instead of servicing Concepcion. So up he goes inside a grandfather clock. Number two lover arrives, an old banker whose pendulum is too old to swing. So, like a Feydeau farce, the two non-functional lovers are shipped up and down in clocks until Concepcion asks the muleteer go to the bedroom once more, 'sans horloge'. Bingo!
An initial review in Paris of the 1911 premiere described the opera as 'a pornographic vaudeville.' Why did Ravel, not known ever to have had even the mildest of affaires, compose the piece? Surely because he was attracted by the opportunity to set a witty farce, with a spicy conservational text and the chance of writing a score that could encompass rich orchestral effects such as the sound of many clocks (he loved them and the work opens with the ticking of three of them set at different speeds) and, above all, an ambience of irony, cool, subtle and all pervasive – the very essence of Ravel.
Ravel's music is not difficult; in a way he is a classical composer, not anti-romantic but non-romantic, considering himself an artisan, something like a good architect or jeweller, not a purveyor of personal sentiment. His music is always straightforward, clear and durable.